Campbell Addy On Feeling Seen, the Black Image and Freedom Of Expression

British-Ghanaian photographer Campbell Addy is among a recent class of Black image-makers redefining image-making. Centering Black subjects, creating truly diverse sets, interjecting their stories into the cannon, and demanding to be seen.

Over the span of his six-year professional photography career, he’s shot the likes of fashion royalty Naomi Campbell, Debra Shaw, and Adut Akech, pop culture icons like Tyler the Creator and Beyoncé, and countless magazine covers, fashion editorials, and campaigns. His work speaks for itself. It’s bold, transcendent, and incredibly intimate. “People have auras, colors, and energies and I try to pick up on that—to see them,” Addy tells ESSENCE. This intimate visibility is the subject of Addy’s forthcoming (it’s already available to UK readers, set to release in The States this June) debut monograph, ‘Feeling Seen’.

ESSENCE caught up with the in-demand photographer to talk all about his new book, earliest memories of representation, how his dual British-Ghanaian heritage influences his work, queer expression, and the experience of photographing everyone’s favorite fashion icon, Naomi.

‘Feeling Seen’ is a survey of Campbell’s work; both professional and personal. “I started off by going from my entire archive, which I haven’t done before and I think by having a theme of feeling seen/feeling seen throughout my explorative work, it allowed me to just pick out imagery that best illustrated that,” says Campbell, speaking on the process of curating the book.

The book with its vibrant cover (an image of model Fadhi Mohamed in a crimson, sequined Bottega Veneta dress surrounded by a bed of anthuriums) encapsulates the eye through which Campbell sees the world. “I wanted the colors to offer travel. So, as you flip through you see a blue section, and then a red section, just so it’s also visually pleasing to the eye as it goes forward” Campbell adds. 

Feeling/Being Seen

In addition to the gorgeous photographs of FKA Twigs and model Enam Asiama, the book is at its core a love letter to representation. Alongside the pages of striking, images are passages and testimonials from a few of Campbell’s collaborators; discussing the safe space he creates, allowing them to “feel seen”. From acclaimed hairstylist Virginie P. Moreira and fellow new black vanguard photographer Nadine Ijewere to Naomi Campbell herself.

“The first time I got in front of the camera lens and looked up to see Campbell Addy, I realized something special was happening”—an excerpt of Naomi’s blurb in ‘Feeling Seen’. One would wonder what it feels like to have such an icon like Naomi speak to your craft. “How does it feel? I don’t know—it’s weird.” Speaking on his colleagues’ inclusion in the book, “they’ve also facilitated my visibility by an understanding of seeing me as a person.”

Double Perspective

One of the many things that make Campbell and subsequently his work quite special and familiar, is the fact that he himself, exists within many intersections. He’s a Black queer man born in London to Ghanian parents. These overarching identities extend to his practice of focusing on distinctive casting and under-represented faces.” I think I’m able to draw from both cultures more so the one I grew up in, but I think it gives me a double perspective on things,” says Campbell referring to his British-Ghanaian heritage.

For people of color, representation speaks volumes. The first time you see yourself reflected in media/entertainment is quite transcendent. For Campbell, it was through a series of Nollywood films his mom would watch in his adolescence. “My mom used to watch these old Nollywood movies and there were these two young boys, Aki and Pawpaw, but they had this dwarfism condition, so they were actually grown, men. My mom used to say that’s me and my brother. He goes on to say, “growing up in England, you didn’t always see that because a lot of stuff I saw was very white facing.”

“There’s an essence, that’s visceral, when you’re listening to, watching, and digesting things, from a group of marginalized people.”

The Queer Mind Is Evolved

“I think everything I do is queer.” Campbell’s work often highlights marginalized communities and people; varying skin tones of the diaspora, plus-sized bodies, and queer folx.” I often toyed with the notion of the queer mind is evolved” says Campbell. “There’s an essence, that’s visceral when you’re listening to, watching, and digesting things, from a group of marginalized people [that are still marginalized now]. This sense of queer expression permeates to his work. “It comes into my work; the casting, people, the music— the ideas all stem from that energy, that queerness.”

Feel Uncomfortable Again

“What’s next? I’m so young—everything. I want to have a baby, get married, lose weight and then put it back on again.”

Campbell reminds us that though he may be a heavyweight on the international fashion stage, he is still in the early stages of his career. “It’s only been roughly four or five years since I’ve been working professionally, so there’s so much I want to do next.” I want to push myself. I want to feel uncomfortable again” he says passionatly. “So what’s next in a simpler term is freedom. More freedom of expression.”

‘Feeling Seen’ is to be globally released on June 7, 2022, at all major book retailers.

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